I read recently the summit of Mt. Everest now has network cell phone service.
This blog, on this Theology & Peace webpage, is part of the digital electronic storm that effectively puts everyone everywhere in contact with everyone everywhere.
And don’t the words “everyone, everywhere” inevitably recall the description given to the rule of faith back in the fifth century—what is believed everywhere, always, by everyone? But this time the “catholic” thing is not a religious belief or organization but a way of being human and it has every chance of totally shaping our human destiny.
Before reflecting more on this in light of Theology & Peace, let me quickly report a couple of points connected to our emerging theological enterprise and its webpage. The Board of T&P recently amped up its theological commitment by appointing a “Theologian in Residence”, someone whose job is to foster our doing theology in key planning and formation areas , and in web communications precisely like this blog. The person given this job, through the 2011 conference, is yours truly. I am thankful for it and can hardly think of a more wonderful thing to be doing at this moment in time. (Isn’t it so absolutely beautiful that my “residence” as a theologian is not in the hallowed precincts of a cathedral close but among movable meetings and the electrons of the internet?)
The other point is also related to our web presence. Jim Warren has been volunteering as our web management person since early in the year and doing a fantastic job. Now he has been appointed to the job officially and we can look forward to his services through 2011. I mentioned Jim and used something he’d written in my last blog (find it directly below). His original piece can be seen at his own website which is one more compelling strand in the multiplying Girardian network of books and websites (go to http://www.biblicalpeacemaking.org/ and click on the Articles tab).
But what about this electro-catholic media world, this self-generating, constantly redoubling world of digital communication? I also read recently that 15 million new cell phone users are added in India every month. (That’s right 15,000,000!) According to a study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation today’s 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7½ hours. The name given to the research is appropriately “Generation M2”, a generation that is media times itself, a generation living inside a virtual space made of media.
I have tried to find terms that adequately describe this stunning new level of human experience. A couple of candidates have been “horizontality” and “proximity”. The first refers to the dimension of human awareness implied by constant communication across planes and surfaces. It makes the lived world of sense experience self-multiplying, a bit like being in an endless hall of mirrors where the mirrors themselves create scenes and sensations that are then reflected by other mirrors, and so on indefinitely. My guess would be that this would subversively alter any traditional sense of the cosmos where meaning and truth trickle down “from above” and are mediated by appointed hierarchical figures. Instead the immediate world of sensed experience provides the realm of meaning, if only because it continues powerfully and again and again to replicate itself all around us.
The second term, “proximity”, evokes the element of communication between human individuals. The Nielsen Co., analyzing the cell phone bills of 60,000 subscribers, discovered that the average 13- to 17-year-old sends and receives an incredible 3,339 text messages a month, over 100 a day. Even if these figures were somehow exaggerated they tell us that there is an enormous flooding river of communication between people, especially youth, and this must continually set desires in motion and work powerfully against traditional or inherited self-images. Everyone is depending on everyone else for who they are and what they mean. The movie The Social Network makes plain the origin of Facebook in the mobilized desires of individuals in a specialized social group—originally the students at Harvard—who all want to appear as cool, hot, successful, sexy, desirable. The movie is a highly perceptive account and makes clear that this dynamic pre-existed the internet (of course), but it shows how the internet has now created a virtually universal social scene and one where these exchanges of desire play out in minutes across cyberspace. What Proust described of an elite and restricted cast of members in the long summers of Combray now belongs to over half a billion people updating their status, or checking on someone else’s, moment by moment.
From a Girardian perspective this can look pretty dire. It means there is truly an enormous crowd out there with all the terrifying, onrushing power of the mob. There have been a number of well-publicized cases of cyber-bullying resulting in the suicide of an individual, giving us the word, ugly in every sense, “cyberbullycide”. And aside from the individual cases there is a continual random tide of violent and hateful expression released on public comment forums like CNN online news, Youtube, etc. There can be little doubt that the anonymous communication of the internet can give breath to a free-floating rage without restraint of custom or community. Girard’s technical term for this is “undifferentiation”, meaning the situation where the absence of clear lines of social difference between people produces a steadily rising tide of anger and violence. Not at all a pretty picture.
However, from a Christ-centered point of view horizontality and proximity can mean entirely the opposite thing, and this is surely the emphasis we want to give at Theology & Peace. Jesus is the one who first provoked the horizontal world—Emmanuel, God-with-us. And the intense proximity of the digital universe cries out for an even more immediate proximity of the face-to-face. Ah, would that the church understand this! In the world of cell phones and Twitter the gospel offers a subversive realization of the horizontal and the proximate, one that brings to effect the radical underlying project first provoked and intended by Jesus. The immediacy of the group that can look into each person’s face and forgive and love, rather than the serried ranks of formal worship, this is the one real and salvific response to the digital explosion around us. What would the church be like if it conceived of itself as an endless honeycomb of cells or groups practicing relational nonviolence, rather than various versions of the skyscraper office? Would not this respond to our electro-catholic world with a much more authentic relational wholeness, the life of the Trinity in our veins? We are in a world transformed, one catalyzed into life by the destabilizing forces of the gospel, but we continue to act as if we were serving a god of a pre-gospel world.
Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian in Residence